Saturday, 29 September 2012

Old Kit and Memories

"Alright, Darling, you win.  But I may be sometime..."
With the over run on this project, I was becoming increasingly concerned for the state of our kit.  By kit I mean everything we own, from smart suits to microwave oven, shoes to paintings, all that which we did not need while our new house was being built and we in the meantime lived in a hovel.  The kit that for the last nine months has lain in boxes stuffed into a wriggly tin shed.  Termites will munch happily on wood and paintings, tin worm will go for anything metallic (we do live not one hundred yards from the sea) and rats will nest in anything, from the deeds of your house to your suits and bedding.  Time, I thought, to take a look.

Well, it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected.  I think I will be making a bonfire of only about half of it.

I was never a fashionista.  In 1984 I had some suits made and they still serve me well,  Since then I have bought only two more.  I have Oxford shoes that I bought 28 years ago and they are still perfectly serviceable.  I was sad to note that the rats, clearly with a taste for pure wool and cashmere of the finest quality, had munched through my greatcoat but, given where I live I suppose one must be philosophical.  When would I ever have worn it again? Still, it does get chilly at might here so the guard was enormously grateful when I gave it to him.

Some things I had not seen for ages and sight of them brought back vivid memories.  Like my old boots and gaiters.  These boots were special.  They are technically only work boots but they were made for the inclement Northern European climate.  Not only are they waterproof, unlike the standard British Army DMS (Dunlop Moulded Sole) boot of the period, they could be strapped to skis, hence the now fashionable but back then purely practical square toe caps and grooves in the heels to take spring bindings.  In my mind, I drifted back 26 years…

Boots, Swedish Army, made 1977, issued 1980.  Gaiters, Australian Light Horse, made, God only knows, issued during the First World War.  Both of them deserve LS&GC's (Long Service & Good Conduct Medals) as they are STILL serving.  These are what I wear when I sneak into the bush to slot a Bush Buck.  Definitely snake proof.  And, if it ever snows in Angola, I know I will make it home.
I was freezing bloody cold and very, very tired.  As I entered the front door I could hear the phone ringing so I dragged snow across the hall rug to get to it.

‘Av you lost a wa-ef?’ said the voice at the other end.

‘A Wa Ef?’

‘Yes, a Waa-ef!, you av e Waef, don’t you?’  I expected him to follow that up with a Monty Pythonesque, ‘You Stewpid Englishman!’

Oh, a WIFE!

‘Well, as a matter of fact, Capitain Le Francois,’ I kid you not, that was his name, ‘I av, I mean I have, I was just out looking for her’

These were the days before mobile phones, the Great Winter of 86/87, so he had been trying to ring me for hours on a landline the end of which, sadly, I had not been near for about twenty miles worth of slogging through knee deep snow.

‘Your Waef, she is Canadienne, no? Only a Canadienne could have driven the way she did tru zis snow and wretch a sef aven!’

‘Actually, I think you’ll find she’s Welsh mon ami.  Perhaps she was hungry and smelt Didi’s cooking?’

‘Bien sur!  You never could cook for shit!  No wonder your wa-ef is so skinny!’

Captain Marcel Le Francois and his enormously fat wife Didi.  French Canadians and two of the nicest people I have ever met.

It had been arctic for the last few days.  I was attending the Ammunition Technical Officer’s course but with my house only a fourteen or so mile bicycle ride away, I chose to live there rather than in married quarters on camp.  Back then, a meandering rural A road connected me between home and work.  Now it is a B road having been replaced by the M40.  Still it kept me fit and there was a decent pub on the way home, the Gaydon Inn.  It was always there when I was heading in the other direction too at Oh My God Hundred Hours in the morning but licensing laws ensured my sobriety in class, although when it came to the fuses exam, few of us could have been sober after a sleepless night revising in the Rose and Crown in Ratley, 900 years old and perched on the escarpment overlooking the fields where slaughter reigned in 1642, and our results bore that out.  Like so many leaders of men launching themselves over the top in the face of impossible odds we were, if not ratted, than at least severely hung over and well beyond caring.

My winding road was a German Autobahn in comparison with the routes taken every day by many of the permanent staff who had settled into isolated Middle England villages nestling along Edge Hill, so as the snow started to flurry, and then tumble down with the driving intensity only ever filmed by suicidal National Geographic camera men, Directing Staff began to wonder how they might get home.  They had cars all of which, saving those assembled at Longbridge, were fitted with working heaters.  I had a bicycle which wasn’t.  Mind you, so long as after my Gaydon Inn pit stop I was sober enough to balance on it and pedal at the same time, it was guaranteed to start and if I kept it on the black stuff, get me home as well.  The tarmac, however, was rapidly disappearing under a cover of, for England, unusually persistent snow.

When the poor, long suffering bastards of the Pioneer Corps were called out of their warm billets to clear the roads within the camp in conditions that had made heroes of many a late lamented English Gentleman trying to reach the South Pole, the school director called it a day and told us all to knock off and go home.

I was born and brought up in Germany so a bit of snow wasn’t going to stop me.  Sure, I wasn’t dressed for it.  It had been a bit parky these last few mornings but, pedalling hard, I’d kept the blood flowing and was unusually alert in class as a result. Barrack dress shoes and trousers, a good old British Army woolly pully and cotton battle dress jacket had done the trick so far and although I knew a beret would not keep my ears warm, it was only fourteen miles with the welcome chance to warm up a bit at the Gaydon Inn twixt Kineton and home.

I turned left out of the gate onto the main road and already I could see there were some serious problems.  I wasn’t going to freeze to death on the way home to be found stationary ear deep in snow with hands frozen to my handlebars and a face fixed in an expression of grim determination, I was going to be side swiped by an out of control car or articulated lorry and then, with bones shattered to dust and a bicycle saddle enema have my corpse recovered days later from a ditch with an equally grim, but distinctly more unsettling countenance.

By the time I reached my intended pit stop, I was really worried about my wife.  She worked in Solihull, a southern suburb of Birmingham and about three times as far away as I had to travel to get home.  The inevitable accidents had blocked the road and of the no doubt overstretched emergency services, there was no sign.  Everything had ground to a halt and the ever driving snow, now drifting, was burying the road and all the cars on it.

I dumped my ‘bike round the back of the Gaydon Inn and pressed on with Shanks’ Pony.  We had been knocked off at three in the afternoon.  I had covered just ten miles since then and it was already dark.  Just after the old Gaydon airfield, I cut across country directly to my house because the drifts and out of control lorries had made the road, the usual route, far harder going.

My house was on top of a hill.  It was so prominent that the US Air Force in their A10’s used it as a navigation point on their low flying cross country exercises.  Ensconced in its warmth in winter (it had central heating but being an old house still had a Rayburn in the kitchen and open fireplaces in every room) the sudden roar of a ‘Warthog’, its American pilot, spurs jingling as he gave it a boot full of rudder while banging his throttles wide open over my lounge was for most guests, a little disconcerting.  In summer, when we were sitting in the garden serving the vicar a Gin and Tonic, it was bloody exciting as one had no inkling of their imminent arrival overhead until, as they say, the earth suddenly moves.  The A10 tank buster was due to be decommissioned, a demise staved off by the first Iraq war.  I can well believe the scenario where a bewildered and mortally wounded Iraqi tank commander’s last words, ears still ringing from the bang were, ‘Well I never heard THAT one coming!’

From the vantage point of a front lawn deep in snow, I could see a long line of stationary head lights marking the road along which my wife used to come home.  Would she have had the sense to stay in a hotel close to work or, like me, would she have been determined to make it back one way or another?  On the off chance I rang her work number.  No answer.  That could only mean she was stuck on the road somewhere, along with hundreds of other motorists none of whom, I suspect, were in any way whatsoever prepared for a night out in temperatures well below freezing.  I pulled out my Bergen and stuffed it with warm clothes and flasks of hot food and drink, strapped on my Langlauf skis and was about to set off when Frank, a local councillor called by.  ‘We are opening the school’, he told me, ‘but we need bedding, can you help?’  I explained that my wife was out there somewhere and I was going to find her.  I gave him the keys to my house.  It had five very roomy and fully equipped bedrooms, the heating was on, there was a large lounge, a dining room, several other rooms and a fully stocked pantry.  At a push, I told him, you could put twenty or thirty in here if the fit adults didn’t mind sleeping on the floor and I was sure some of the women could rustle up a nice meal for everyone.  Councillor Frank advised me that the police had closed the road where it crossed Fosse Way because Chesterton Hill was impassable even to snow ploughs, so that meant I only had about three miles to cover.  If her car wasn’t stuck in those three miles, she would probably have holed up somewhere. 

I rang the Orderly Officer back at camp.  He knew what was going on and was already mobilising teams with Landrovers.  I strapped my greatcoat on top of the Bergen and skied off into the blizzard. 

It was like something out of a film of Bonaparte’s retreat from Moscow.  I was in a hurry to get to the Fosse Way junction but I had to keep stopping to give thoroughly alarmed, freezing people directions.  It was the first time I had seen such a large number of really frightened people.  Just head for the lights, I said, it isn’t far and there are some neighbours waiting for you who will get you to somewhere warm.  There were jack-knifed trucks blocking the road with cars paralysed behind them all slowly being buried in the drifting snow.  I came across our local Bobby, freezing his bloody nuts off trying to convince the stubborn to abandon their vehicles and make their way to safety before they were buried.  I gave him my greatcoat the insignia of which suddenly gave him the rank of Inspector and said that in my opinion he shouldn’t waste time trying to convince some single bloke to leave his car but just to concentrate on those cars containing women and children.  Once I had made the climb to Chesterton Wood it was an easy ski down to the junction.  All the vehicles on the downhill stretch had already been abandoned and were buried up to their door handles.  There was no sign of my wife’s car.  The Police told me the council would not even try to clear the road until daylight so I headed back.

It was as I was kicking my skis off outside my front door that I heard the phone ringing and so burst in trudging snow over the hall rug and grabbed the receiver from its cradle.

‘So your wa-ef’, he continued, ‘She sleeps ‘ere with me!’

I had just covered ten miles on a bicycle, followed by four on foot and then six on skis so how the hell did my wife make it to Central Ammunition Depot Kineton, which was fourteen miles beyond her intended destination?  I had just slogged up the road from CAD Kineton to the Fosse Way junction and back and nothing was moving.  It was then I noticed the house was full of women and children.

‘She’s safe is she? Good, I’ll call you back’, I said and hung up.

‘Was that that nice French gentleman Marcel?’ a young lady asked me, ‘If you are Lieutenant Gowans, he’s been ringing for the last hour to say your wife is safe.  Gosh, you look perished, would you like a cup of tea? I’ve just made a pot.’

As I walked through the house gratefully sucking on my tea I reckon there must have been fifteen or so, all women and children nicely settled in. After the cold, my ears were burning, not because of gossip, but because they were painfully thawing out. I was still in uniform and the snow and ice clinging to it was melting leaving me decidedly clammy.

‘Frank said I must make a list of everything we have used’, said the young lady handing me a piece of A4 neatly inscribed with details down to the last tea bag, ‘we cannot tell you how grateful we are’.

There was no point me telling them all to make themselves at home as they had clearly, under the guidance of Councillor Frank, done exactly that.

I trudged up the lane to the school to see Frank who had based himself there.  Evidently he had persuaded the whole village to empty their larders of Cuppa Soup packets and Pot Noodles and, as is so terribly English, those members of the Women’s Institute resident in our village had reported for duty and were doling out yet more tea.  All that was missing were the ARP wardens.  And maybe Captain Mainwaring and his platoon.

‘I hope you don’t mind’, Frank apologised, ‘but I put the single women and children in your house’ he said. ‘I did put someone in charge’, he continued, ‘She’s an accountant on her way back to Banbury’.  Well that explains the neatly written list, I thought.  But it left me with a problem.  If the Council had designated my house as for women and children refugees only, where was I going to sleep?  I certainly didn’t fancy the floor of the school hall.

On the top of a hill as we were, the wind had so far done a good job of keeping the lanes clear but now the wind had died down and the snow continued to fall relentlessly, no vehicle was moving here either.  I made my way home, packed the Bergen with spare knickers and other womany things, a clean uniform for me and strapped on my skis again.  ‘I’ll see you in the morning’, I said to the nice lady accountant.

As I passed it for the third time that day, I could see the Gaydon Inn was doing a roaring trade but I resisted the temptation and slogged on.  Gaydon is on a hill too so the lucky ones had their cars parked up around it and the landlord clearly recognised no Peeler would be dropping in to check what time last order was called.  As I descended into the valley towards Temple Herdewyke, the lights of CAD Kineton beckoning me on, I could see just how many vehicles were abandoned to the snow, even some of the Orderly Officer’s Landrovers.  Well, they were on his flick this God awful evening, so it would be his problem to explain to the CO the following morning why the Warwickshire countryside was littered with Army property.

I reached the camp gates and saw that those poor bastard ‘Chunks’, the Royal Pioneer Corps, were still shovelling like mad to keep the road clear between the main gate and, presumably, the Officer’s Mess.  What was the point?  The only thing that was going to reach those gates would be a tracked vehicle, or a frost bitten and oh so very pissed off young officer on skis. 

‘Ah!  You are crrrazy Tomas!’ Marcel exclaimed as he opened the front door, the bell of which I was leaning against, ‘Didi!  Ah present you eh snowman!’ he announced with Gallic flourish.  ‘Hélene, ma petit choux!  Ur lunatic usband, e iz ear! Ah told you, zis dust of snow would not keep ‘im from ur arms!’

Didi gave me a massive hug that splintered most of the accumulated ice off me as well as shattering a couple of ribs.  Like I said, she was a big girl.

Marcel Le Francois and his wife Didi were French Canadians for whom being snowed in was an annual event lasting about four months so they were completely unphased by what for us locals was an extraordinary event.  I had covered 34 miles since saying cheerio to him at the school at 3pm and no, I didn’t want a glass of his indisputably verry faan waan, I wanted a very large scotch and a plate of anything hot Didi had on the stove.

My wife explained that on reaching the road block at Fosse way, she had dodged west and then south making it to the back gates of the camp (only ever opened in times of war) where sympathetic guards had let her in.  That could only have been the Orderly Officer who authorised the opening of those gates so I made a mental note to volunteer to be his defending officer at his inevitable Court Martial for losing so many Landrovers in one night.

As I thawed out with a glass of mulled wine (Marcel was always too persuasive to resist and I have to admit, his was a better choice), I explained to my wife that her nice orderly house was now a refugee camp.  She wasn’t best pleased and the atmosphere, hitherto deliciously warm, became colder than the outside I had just stumbled in from.  There followed, let’s say, a somewhat animated discussion about whose fault this might be and the best course of action that would ensure my wife’s pearls where still on her make up table the following morning.

I suppose I could see her point about me turning her home and everything therein over to strangers, literally off the street but I was mightily pissed off as I strapped the skis on again and headed the 14 miles back home.  As I tried to leave the camp, the Guard Commander told me he had just received orders that no one was to pass out through the gates anymore.  I would dearly have loved to have passed out there and then, in a crumpled heap, and seriously thought about arguing with him so convincingly he would have no alternative but to jail me in his nice warm cells and save me a long cold slog, but he then remembered the order specifically concluded with, ‘in vehicles’.  No mention of feet, or skis attached thereto so I was reluctantly allowed to continue.  The reluctance was all on my part, of course, not the polite and irritatingly efficient Guard Commander.

As I pushed on up the hill towards Gaydon, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped snowing and the sky cleared.  Under a nearly full moon and a canopy of stars, the snow covered landscape was etched with stark contrast.  Few people ever really enjoy perfect silence but on this night, with no traffic at all and everyone either in bed or frozen into immobility, it was eerily quiet.  Apart from, that is, my wheezing lungs and my all too frequent curses as my skis fell through the snow tipping me into a heap rather than allowing me to glide smoothly over the top.  I would like to have reported that the scene was breathtaking, awesome, even majestic but there was no breath left in me.  Still, two out of three wasn’t bad.

I could see as I slid past that the Gaydon revellers had burnt themselves out and when I eventually arrived home, I found the doors to my house locked.  By now I was starting to get a little pissed off with efficient people.  Damn the bloody Banbury accountant, damn that bloody Guard Commander and damn my flaming wife.  It was now four in the morning so I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to find the school locked up and no bugger awake.  Clearly Councillor Frank, normally very efficient, had forgotten about stragglers coming in from the cold.

I let myself into my shed, also happily my store of booze and, ignoring all my training, part of which warned that alcohol accelerated the onset of hypothermia, spent the next couple of hours choking down Benson & Hedges and 25 year old Glenfarclas malt while watching the smoke drift from the chimneys of my house.  Next time you make a mental note to change the light bulb in your outbuilding by the way, don’t just think about it, do it.  It was a black night.

At seven, I detected movement in the house so I knocked on the kitchen door.  There was much rattling of keys as they found the right one and then, as I passed into shocking warmth, Miss Banbury Accountant 1986 said, ‘Gosh Lieutenant Gowans, you look perished, would you like a cup of tea?  We have a fresh pot brewing.’  I can’t remember exactly what I said.  I think it was something like, ‘I hope you all had a comfortable night?’ and not, ‘FUCK AYE! YES PLEASE!!!’  I would never have said that.  I am sure the assembled women and children were only shocked by my appearance. I was as confident of that as I was the fact Miss Banbury becoming ever more attractive by the minute had absolutely nothing to do with the sudden urge I had to brush my teeth and run some water over my body.  And splash myself with a rather too many droplets of Eau Sauvage.  They say that when men die, they do so with an erection, a last futile attempt to spread their seed.  Under those criteria, clearly I was at Death’s door.  Either that or during the preceding couple of hours in self imposed incarceration in my wine cellar I had dozed off, enjoyed an erotic dream and had been frozen to attention.  At least I now knew what a Blue Veiner was. Unattended, they are jolly painful, by the way and ruin the cut of one’s uniform.  Without wishing to brag, they can be a bit of a conversation stopper.  We’re talking women and children here, after all.  Us chaps just take them in our stride.

I skied back to camp in blazing sunshine.  On the way I noticed that every single vehicle stuck window deep in the snow had been vandalised.  Every bit of glass had been smashed.  Every instrument on every dash was splintered and every stereo had been ripped out.  The father of one of my Corporals had built him a convertible MG B fitting it with a Rover V8 engine.  It was a work of art and even had a brass plaque on the dash reminding the boy every time he drove it who had put in so many man hours and that it had been given to him by a clearly doting father for his 21st birthday.  The roof was slashed as was the leather upholstery.  It was heart breaking.  Half of the owners of these now wrecks I bet had only third party insurance so would have to bear the loss themselves.  If my wife’s car had been one of these trampled and smashed along that road, as a strapped young officer depending on her contribution to the family income, I might have been in the career stalling embarrassing position of not being able to pay my mess bill. Even the Landrover’s released to the service of society by the very brave previous night’s Duty Officer had been comprehensively stuffed.  Imagine the effect of such criminally destructive behaviour on someone like the budding Banbury accountant just starting to make her way in the world?

I arrived back in camp.  My wife had already left for work through the back gate dressed in the fresh clothes I had brought her the night before.  Lessons were cancelled so we all wired in with cleaning the camp up and getting it operational again.  By the end of the day, the snow ploughs and recovery trucks had reopened the road and someone, can’t remember who but evidently senior enough, ordered I be taken home in one of Her Majesty’s few remaining Landrovers.  At the Gaydon Inn I asked the driver to stop as I had to collect my ‘bike and invited him in for a pint.  He refused as he was on duty.  I said fine, thanks, bugger off then as I was in no hurry to go home and face a real shit storm.

Two hours later and tanked up with quite a few flagons of Wadsworth 6X, I wobbled up the driveway and walked into my house. 

‘Lieutenant Gowans!  You’re back!’  Miss Banbury 19 eighty whatever, I couldn’t remember, was still there.

‘Darling!  You’re home!’ said my wife, with a warmth and generosity that belied her spirit of the previous evening, before turning back to her new friend.

Twenty four hours full of bleeding surprises and a fuses exam in the morning.

The house was immaculate.  Every bit of linen, every pot, pan, knife, fork and spoon, every cup, plate and bowl had been cleaned and returned to its usual home.  The rugs were free of slushy mud stains and Councillor Frank had somehow managed to get in an impressive bunch of flowers from Leamington Spa for Helen.  Not only would I have to be defending officer for a man who had exhibited under stress balls the size of a planet, I was now morally obliged to vote Labour.*

I think I fell asleep somewhere between the soup and the main course so missed out on that delectable English dessert, Banbury Tart dressed with Wife under lightly fluffed eiderdown.

As I cycled to work the following morning along newly cleared roads, I wondered how it was possible that 99% of the population could be so selfless, yet 1% could be such utter shits.

*For US readers, this would be equivalent to a life long Republican from the Lone Star State suddenly voting Democrat


  1. My God, do I love reading you! You have a storehouse of tales to tell and a gift for laying them out in writing. Keep up the brilliant work.

    So how did that fuses class go?

  2. 'kin 'ell Phil, where have you been? The last feed I received from you was 2011. I thought you were pushing up daisies or at the bottom of some river sipping sewage.

    Your new wordpress link is now on my sidebar so I can keep up with your inane ramblings!

    Good to hear from you, mate!

  3. Phil, the fuses exam. Exams I should say, the subject was so huge there were three of them. We all failed so they allowed us to do a retake. Man, you have NO idea how boring fuses are.

    "Here we see a cutaway diagram of the L106A2 Direct Action and Graze Fuse, it differs from the L106A1 in that..."


  4. Your way back stories are compelling reading.

  5. "... Gaiters, Australian Light Horse, made, God only knows, issued during the First World War. ..." worth a fortune amongst memorabilia collectors in Australia - Light horse re-enacters are always searhing for the genuine kit articles! Got and spare bandoliers?

  6. I've been buried in work, and I'm guessing being at the bottom of a river, sipping sewage might be a nicer alternative to that. I've got some catching up to do with some of your prior postings, but what a great way to surface.

    While I suppose those fuses classes might make you fall asleep, I do have to wonder if you are dismantling an explosive, if you've ever had the thought cross your mind: Dammit, I wish I was paying better attention in class that day...

  7. The problem is going to be that we have ceased removing the 1% from the gene pool ... shame you didn't catch the little bugger and get a chance to stake him out on the bonnet of one of the wrecks to await the ministrations of the Banbury W.I.

    Reminds me of a lovely fourteen-hour drive I had one winter in the eighties between Basingstoke (Hell "A") and Grimsby (Hell "B") - wouldn't have been have so bad had my Father not kindly filled the windscreen washer bottle with methylated spirits! The fumes, the fumes, the flames, the flames!

  8. Joanne, how kind of you to say so, makes a pastime all the more gratifying.

    John D, I haven't any bandloliers, I would love to have some. I had a pair of original boots but no amount of effort could save them, they fell apart. That wasn't poor quality, though, it was just age. Some of that original kit was much better made than their modern equivalents and it is a pity you can't buy to the same standard anymore. One of my dogs was killed by a snake here and although they may look a bit poncey, the gaitors are great for pushing through scrub.

    Phil, the course was long enough as it was but there was always something we came across that made our arses go sixpence - half a crown and wish to hell we'd paid more attention. Trust me, Mr Phil, adrenalin is brown.

    Sir Owl, it was a mistake to ban the birch. Your journey may have taken 14 hours but at least you were pleasantly intoxicated and warm. Blind perhaps on meths, but warm.

  9. you have a genuine talent for writing dialogue
    it brings the characters alive.....
    you know I think I remember this time as the weather here in wales was abysml at that time.....I got caught in a snow drift in nearby llanasa with my brother

    write a book dear thing!

  10. How about the winter of '78 '79? I froze my nuts off rescuing early spring lambs off the Welsh hills.

    If you promise to do your best to keep me sober, can we write the book together?

  11. A very enjoyable read in which your words really capture the sense of what happened that unusual night and how you felt about it all. There's an earthy, masculine quality about the telling which I found refreshing.

  12. Great read. Stuff Proust and his madeleines, this recall is far more interesting to me.


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